Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Facebook Censorship, When Social Networks Block the Sharing of Links (or Worse)

Facebook Censoring LinksSocial networking is booming and millions of people have signed up for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare, etc. Using those services, people are continually posting updates, tweeting, liking, checking in, and {enter new buzz term here.} It makes sense. Social networks provide an incredible way to connect with family, friends, colleagues, and others in your industry.

When used correctly, social media can definitely give you a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. But when you take a deeper look, are the social networks really that nice? Who is really in control of your accounts, what are the social networks monitoring, and can you potentially lose the accounts that you’ve worked so hard to build?

-What can happen to your digital equity? -

Facebook Censored a Link I Was Trying to Share
If you follow me on Twitter, then you know that I like to share links to valuable articles and posts. For example, I often tweet about the latest news in Search, Social Media, Analytics, Technology, etc. A few weeks ago, one such link came across Tweetdeck. It was about Facebook apparently shutting down a page that had built up 47,000 fans. The problem had to do with the page in question using a vanity URL with the word Realtor in it (SocialRealtors), which is trademarked by The National Association of Realtors. Jonathan Rivera, the person that had set up the page, obviously worked his tail off building up a following (47K strong), and in the blink of an eye, the page was shut down. That’s disturbing enough, but what happened next is equally as disturbing to me.

Note: The page was finally reinstated and now uses a vanity URL that doesn’t cause any problems trademark-wise. That said, it’s still shocking to know that a social network could crush everything you’ve built up in mere seconds.

On July 15th, I tweeted the article on Twitter and then headed to Facebook to share the link with my friends. I don’t share all of the links on Facebook that I tweet, but this one seemed important. I think too many people frolic around Facebook without understanding the privacy issues involved, the targeting capabilities of Facebook Ads, the ownership of what’s posted, etc. So, I opened up Facebook like I typically do, and started to post my update. I clicked “Attach: Link” and then pasted the link to the post I just read on techsavvyagent.com. When I clicked “Apply”, an error message popped up saying that “Something went wrong. We’re working on getting it fixed as soon as we can.”

Facebook Censorship

OK, I was cool with that. Technology can be glitchy sometimes. So, I waited a few minutes and then tried again. The same message popped up. Huh? So, I took another URL unrelated to the Facebook page that was removed and it went through just fine. Then I immediately tried to share the original article again (about Facebook shutting down the page), and once again, the error message popped up.

Facebook, are you serious? Are you censoring the links I share and trying to make it look like there’s an error? I’d respect Facebook more if it just said, “That link has been flagged as inappropriate based on an internal investigation of the page in question.” At least that would be partly true. To be clear, I totally understand that in certain situations, Facebook should take action. For example, if someone is breaking the law, attacking another user, or someone’s updates are completely offensive. But the idea that Facebook might be censoring links because it doesn’t want certain articles to be shared is ridiculous. By the way, I also asked my wife to try and post the link, and she couldn’t either. I wanted to make sure this was more than an isolated issue.

For almost an entire week, I could not post the link. The error message was coming up as recently as yesterday morning. Today, however, I could post the link. It’s the first time since July 15th that I’ve been able to share that post on Facebook. Why did this happen, how come I can now post the link, why did it take almost exactly one week? I have no idea, but I’m still not happy that Facebook was stopping the link from being shared…

How Widespread Is Facebook Censoring?
So of course the next question that came to mind was, “How widespread is the censoring of links or other activities on Facebook?” And to take it even further, is Facebook using “error messages” as a tactic for making users believe that they aren’t being censored? Unfortunately, I don’t have answers to these questions (yet). A quick search on Google for Facebook censorship yields many articles about Facebook censoring links or groups or updates, so this is nothing new for the social network with close to 500 million members.

I think it’s important to address this topic now. As technology advances, we’ll be dealing with more and more connectivity (on both a technology and a personal level.) Layered on top of that connectivity are serious privacy issues, censorship issues, and a growing concern about “what crosses the line?” To me, Facebook is crossing the line if they are censoring links like the one I tried to share.

Digital Equity and Account Ownership
I wrote a post in 2009 that was titled, Lawyers, Guns, and Twitter – Who Owns Your Twitter Account, which addressed the sticky topic of Twitter account ownership. The post seemed to strike a nerve with Twitter users and executives, since there wasn’t a clear answer. One of the comments was by Steve Plunkett, someone I greatly respect in the SEO community. You can read his entire comment on the post itself, but his point was that none of us “own” our social media accounts. The social networks do. I think his point never meant more than the second I realized that Facebook was censoring my links. Steve is right and the situation I experienced supports his view. Not only was Facebook inhibiting me from sharing a link, but that link was about another person whose page of 47K fans was shut down without any notice. So, you had two examples of how a social network had the ultimate control.

This is part of the reason that I explain to new clients that although social media can be incredibly powerful, they should first invest in their own site, blogs, etc. They shouldn’t simply rely on their social media accounts without having a solid strategy for building up power in their own assets. You own your domain name, you own your website, and you own your content and blog posts. In addition, if you do the right things, your assets can build up search power, traffic, subscribers, customers, etc. (AKA digital equity). For the most part, nobody can take that away from you. Of course, Google can strip your SEO power if they believe you broke the rules, but you get the picture. You have much greater control than you do on social networks (where the socnets are clearly in control…more than you think).

Think about this for a second. Imagine you built up 4500 fans on Facebook and 8000 followers on Twitter only to wake up one morning and find out that both social networks shut down your accounts. You would be left with nothing. Don’t let this happen to you. Make sure you also focus on your own assets (your sites, blogs, content, etc.) Stay in control of as many assets as you can, and build your digital equity. Social media will definitely be part of the equation, but don’t let it be the only part. You can ask Jonathan Rivera about how he would do things differently after his page was shut down (even though it has been reinstated).

Final Thoughts About Social Censorship
As you can probably tell, I believe this topic is extremely important. What happened on Facebook that day disturbed me on several levels. First, Facebook shut down a page with 47,000 fans, with no warning. Second, Facebook was censoring my links about that happening. Third, Facebook showed an error message versus telling the truth about what it was doing. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like social networks telling me what I can share, while also having the ability to strip away hard-earned digital equity in a flash. That’s part of the reason I’ve been blogging for years.

Think about that the next time you feel all warm and fuzzy inside when sharing the photos of your kids…

GG

25 Responses to “Facebook Censorship, When Social Networks Block the Sharing of Links (or Worse)”

  1. Thanks for the mention… i think people are reasonably clueless when it comes to intellectual property on FaceBook… they dont’ realize that all those pictures they put up.. are owned by facebook.. and as Facebook becomes more connected among the web,those pictures can show up in ads without their permission.. oh wait.. your facebook privacy settings are you giving permission..

    The funny thing about this is.. @bcuban worked his tail off to try and get some hate groups removed from facebook.. the irony.. they wouldn’t censor hate speech.. #fail #facebook

  2. Glenn Gabe says:

    I completely agree with you Steve. I find most people don’t understand what they are sharing, how to adjust their privacy settings, and what can end up happening in the long run. I’m familiar with Brian and will definitely check out his blog in greater detail. It’s crazy that FB won’t stop hate groups, but will remove other pages in a heartbeat.

    GG

  3. Chris Smith says:

    Great write up. Thanks for linking to the interview. Another element to this is by bringing the page back with ironically the help of Twitter. It may have shown that all may be right with the world but we have to speak up to make it happen. Jon had value in what he was doing. Had he not I would have never reached out to him for a story. Feels great that so many got behind this. The link sharing issue is also scary an Jon couldn’t post any for a few days after reinstatement as well.

  4. Glenn Gabe says:

    Thanks Chris. I’m glad to hear that Twitter helped! I’d like to learn more about how that happened. Regarding the link sharing issue, I was shocked to see FB throwing the error message. Again, I would have understood if they said the page was under investigation or something like that… I could only imagine that Jonathan’s links were being stopped as well. I’m glad it worked out for him and his community.

    That said, he should think hard about the digital equity segment in my post. I wouldn’t put all my eggs in the Facebook basket. :)

    GG

  5. Jody Raines says:

    Glenn,

    Simply chilling and a very clear analogy for owning our assets! Nothing like having a clear example like this to keep us from becoming too complacent with building a social media presence and just expecting it to work tomorrow like it did yesterday.

    Unfortunately, social media platforms are new, and there are no real rules or guarantees. It’s fun and can be effective, but as you mentioned, anything you build can be taken away in an instant.

    Great article, thanks so much for sharing your experience.

    Jody

  6. Glenn great article yet again. Facebook is becoming that mysterious behemoth that no one can figure out. It’s a great service don’t get me wrong but sometimes I wonder what their motives are. Part of me also wants to say that they are just learning but they keep making these similar mistakes. I’m not so sure they’re just “learning” anymore.

  7. Glenn Gabe says:

    Thanks Seth. I agree with you that people cannot figure Facebook out. In addition, and possibly more importantly, can we trust FB? I was really surprised to see my links being blocked…but even more surprised to see the “error message” being thrown. That’s ridiculous. If they simply stuck with the truth, they would be in much better shape. It’s almost like they aren’t learning from previous mistakes, and that’s never a good sign.

    GG

  8. Bill C says:

    I have had several links blocked by Facebook, including this article. I don’t get an error message however, just a blank page.

  9. Nona Whippo says:

    Almost everyone these days have their own Facebook account. And I guess you’re right, most of these people don’t know that the pictures they post or share are owned by Facebook and they can show it to the entire world if they want and we can’t do anything about it.

  10. [...] was when Masalacism, friends of Dutty Artz, had their free blog shut down by Google. The second was this recent article by online marketer Glen Gabe whose stuff I like. In short he was trying to talk about a similar event on Facebook where a [...]

  11. Brent Miller says:

    I recently posted an update with a link to my own website, attempting to communicate an update to family and friends about a deportation hearing for another friend. No one replied.

    Now the hearing is over; friend is being deported and I just found out that FB had been silently censoring my update. It showed for me but no one else. When I post a message saying “test” everyone can see it. When I post a message with a link to my page, only I see it.

    My stomach is turned by the tragedy. Trial is over, friend being deported, and it’s too late for anyone to participate. Can we deport the management of facebook?

  12. Glenn Gabe says:

    @Brent, I’m sorry to hear about your story, but it unfortunately doesn’t shock me. I was also disturbed to find out that links were being censored. To me, that crosses the line. It shouldn’t happen, and if it does, they should at least be up front about it. My advice is to expand beyond Facebook and utilize other social networks. It will inherently diversify your communications. :)

    GG

  13. JOhn says:

    Yes face book censored lots of my posts they don’t like to let people have a opinion about things and that is really sad

  14. john d oneworlder says:

    When I post certain links they don’t show up as hyperlinks and then in a few seconds aren’t there at all or won’t show up in the first place even though someone above me, unbeknown to me at the moment of posting, had posted the exact same link without problem. Also, groups I am in are allowed to post something but when I go to share it simply doesn’t post. Much of this censorship seems to be account specific as opposed to randomly done in an automated fashion facebook wide. It’s high time someone created a free and open social media site though with freedom being eroded at the rate it is it may be silly to think there can be any online…

  15. Great (terrible) article Glenn, thank you.

    I think we need to spend money! :)

    We’ve gotten so used to Gmail, Facebook, Friendster, Foursquare, and everything else being “free” — We know “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”… and as your article shows, we are paying a heavy price for these “free” services.

    We are a culture obsessed with Free Beer, and we are gladly, ignorantly, giving up our Free Speech to get it.

    The business models of all these services makes sense given the sheep (cheep sheep) that we users are, but it makes we the users irrelevant to the providers who focus on their real funders.

    Flickr does charge a modest fee, yet Violet Blue unfortunately found them to be an unresponsive bureaucracy anyway:
    http://vaneeesa.com/2010/02/22/artist-violet-blue/

    Around the time that Amazon, PayPal, and all those services that we used to love and trust cut Wikileaks off, an idea that I believe should get a lot more traction was born: “Wikiterms”

    Today, the TOS of pretty much every online service can be summed up as “We the service get everything, you the user get nothing. We can dump your account or the entire service with no notice, we can exploit your content and your life in any way, ethical or not, that might remotely make profit for us, etc etc…”

    Of course Violet Blue, Jonathan Rivera, and all the rest of us are irrelevant cogs to these machines, what do they care if are inconvenienced.

    The idea behind Wikiterms is that if a critical mass of users went to Flickr or Facebook or Google+ or anyone else and said “here are the terms under which we are willing to use your service” we might become a significant enough force that they would have to care… that they would have to negotiate terms instead of simply dictate draconian terms as they do today.

    Personally I wouldn’t mind spending some cash for these valuable services and I’d love to see “us” start putting our Wikiterms forth.

    (Ironically I paid for my own branded email for ages, till I finally realized that every new service I signed up for couldn’t “find my friends” so I finally moved to Gmail so as to have better relationship consistency across platforms)

  16. Glenn Gabe says:

    Thanks for your thorough comment Vaneesa. It really is disturbing what can happen when people give companies, websites, social networks, etc. the power to do what they want (with your own work). I agree with you regarding spending money. I’d sure spend some money to ensure I control and own any updates, photos, articles, posts, etc. That said, I’m not sure everyone would be with us on that one. :)

    Regarding your comment about gmail, don’t get too comfortable yet. This post about gmail accounts getting hacked is one of the most popular on my blog (unfortunately). :(

    GG

  17. alex says:

    We can’t seem to post any of our new videos (posted to youtube or blip) to facebook lately either. These are brand new videos that haven’t ever been shared before, so there’s no chance they’ve been flagged before. We’ve filled out facebook’s “error” form a bunch of times but have yet to hear anything back.

    “This message contains blocked content that has previously been flagged as abusive or spammy. Let us know if you think this is an error.”

  18. alex says:

    even stranger, it seems only to give that message if we post it as a “link”, not as a “status” update.

  19. As a writer, I object to any site that claims ownership of my materials as a condition of use. So I don’t use Facebook. It’s impenetrable to me, anyway. I find that few people are conversant with the ins and outs — they just seem to know enough to get by. The structure is extremely arbitrary and closed off; many’s the time I got a Facebook page as a search result but would have to log in to see the content.

    I belong to a trade group where member participation has been gradually falling off and now some members want to move it to Facebook because that’s where their “friends” are. Yeah, whatever.

    • Glenn Gabe says:

      I hear you Charleen. I would fight to keep your community on your own site and servers. It’s ok to expand to Facebook (or other social networks), but your anchor should be owned by you.

      GG

  20. Christine says:

    This just happened to me too. I posted a link on facebook, and a few other people shared it. I disappeared completely from everyone’s wall. I tried to repost it, and I get that same error you got. So much for free speech.

    • Glenn Gabe says:

      I’m sorry to hear about that Christine, but it doesn’t shock me. Facebook wants you to share everything, but only if they approve. :) I was waiting to hear that at the F8 keynote this week…

      Try Google+, I think you’ll like it. I’m finding myself visiting G+ more than Facebook since it launched.

      GG

  21. Jason says:

    Thanks for this article, I’ve recently been researching this topic as over the last few days I’ve posted, or attempted to post some views I have about a recent video that went viral on youtube. It posted to my facebook profile and also to the news feed but vanished after about 5 minutes, two days later I posted something else related to the same subject, and this time it didn’t even get to the news feed, so I posted something else unrelated and immediately went to the news feed… coincidence? I don’t think so…

    • Glenn Gabe says:

      I’m sorry to hear about that Jason, but it doesn’t shock me at all. Wouldn’t it be great if Facebook just told you that the post has been flagged. I’d have a lot more respect for that than just making posts disappear. :) Keep me posted on any updates to your story.

      GG